Chapter One: In the Clouds of Knowledge
“All this time waiting, anticipating
Choking on the lie
Show me something real
Such a sight in the back of my mind
Show me something real…”
You’re Pretty . Something Real
A deep drag on his cigarette, Joshua looked up through the smeared window of his apartment, unable to distinguish the gray, winter sky and the grime that coated the cracked glass. To his right was a copy of Timothy Leary’s ‘Change your Brain’, and to his left was the bubbled-glass ashtray and a glass of vodka and Coke. It was a hell of a way to start his birthday, but it was fitting, he thought. His mother birthed him after nine months of alcohol intoxication, so it’d be fitting for him to go out in the same manner. It was all irrelevant to him; he was only a year closer to death. So he was twenty one, big deal. There was little excitement or joy in his life, only her. Yeah, he had her. Smiling at the thought, a fragile and cracked smile, Josh took another drag from his cigarette, pulling the thick, gray smoke deep into his hole-ridden lungs. It seemed minute and trivial; a human being the source of his happiness, but that’s just the way it was. Sure, nothing was eternal. Sure, everything was conditional. Sure, it would end. Eventually. But not yet, not now, no – she was still there, and for the time being, that’s where she was going to stay, until the fateful day that the end would claim them.
Shaking his head, he pried himself from the recliner, and moved through his dingy, rat-shit-hole apartment, turning one light on and another off, he migrated his way into the bathroom. The cigarette fell with a pop into the commode, and the shower sprang to life; an unknown CD croaking forth from the speakers of the small boom box setting on the vanity. He’d remember, or at least know what it was soon enough; whatever it was he had listened to a few days ago. He couldn’t remember, but he would. He always remembered. He knew his collection like the back of his hand. If he really felt the desire, he could flip through his plethora of folders in his mind, and find the slot that was missing. The CD in the player. But no, this was easier and quicker. He reached over, the steady stream of piss landing noisily in the toilet, turning the volume up. Silly boy; silly, silly boy – Beethoven’s 9th. Of course. He should have known, he had been listening to a lot of the Symphonies as of late, and the Ninth was his favorite, especially to shower to. There was something about it that seemed to clean his soul while the water and soap cleaned his body.
The steaming water came down on him, splashing in every direction, clearing his sinuses and the congestion in his lungs. Closing his eyes, it was still bright as day, and he could see everything around him without looking. In the corner, far away, much further than possible, a flicker caught his eye. He had an idea of what it was, but he knew that there was no telling until he got on his knees and looked. Like Alice through the rabbit hole.
Tearing down his spine, the water turned his flesh lobster red and his knees, against the hard cast-iron of the tub were equally as red; from the heat and sheer discomfort. Inching ever closer, he saw a deep hole; a shadow, but far too dark and deep to be a shadow. No, this was something altogether different. Further he went, reaching his hand out, a finger easing into the shadow. It was ice cold and caused him to recoil. That was enough exploring, he thought; returning to his upright position, feeling the cold creep over his entire body, despite the water crashing into him like a semi truck.
Opening his eyes, his body was warm once again, and the water was nearing him to pure serenity – full launch into the great unknown of his subconscious.
“Nothing is real, it’s all just a dream within a dream.” He spoke to himself, his hair clinging madly to his face in black ropes, down his cheek and his neck.
With the water off, the Symphony kicked into full gear, sending his mind reeling into the cosmos, sending him to safety.
“Happy Birthday, my boy, happy birthday!” Bryan called from across the room, his voice box contorted into a faux-British accent.
“Yeah, thanks bro. Have you seen Beth?”
“She’s over in that direction. Towards the pool table.” He answered, throwing his arms tightly around the guest of honor. “Happy birthday, Josh. This is the big one, it only gets worse from here, kid.”
Looking at Bryan with a painfully aware grin he nodded, said thanks again, and worked his way through to the improvised game-room. The centerpiece was an impressive onyx bodied regulation sized pool table; and there, to the side, was she in a crisp pair of black flared jeans and a glossy, blue camisole clinging tightly to her body, taking each breath with her, almost manipulating each move like a symbiotic organism. None the less, in his eyes, she was the utmost epitome of beauty. Her dark, chestnut hair falling over her shoulders, and her crystal blue eyes staring off into some unknown point in space, and those full, ruby red lips glistening in the pale light of the room, just the sight of her sent his heart a-flutter. Slipping behind her, completely unaware of his presence, he took his hand and slipped it down the right side of her neck, sending a chill down her spine and shocking her back to the land of the living.
“Oh! There you are?!” They wrapped their arms tightly around each other, and she placed a soft, warm kiss against his neck. “What took you so long?”
“Oh, you know – have to be fashionably late to my own party. It’s tacky to be right on time.” He chortled, taking a step back and lighting a cigarette. “Now, don’t you worry. No news is good news, you know that. What have I missed?”
“Nothing too exciting, just me getting my ass handed to me at pool by little Mr. Man, over there.” She nodded across the pool table to David, who was leaning against the wall near a window, a half-finished double shot of whiskey in his hand. With a broad smile, Josh moved around the table, and wrapped his hand around a pool cue.
“Let’s go, Dave. Let me show you how to win properly.” He smirked, palming the blue-chalk.
“Rack ‘em up, Birthday boy. No special treatment here.” Everyone smiled, like they were all dead and made to look happy. It seemed false, but the world was a joyful place tonight, their youngest had finally reached of-age.
Ten shots later, Josh rose victorious from his shooters-stance, a fresh drink waiting for him on the corner of the green felt. “So Bruce, when’re the parents getting home, my boy?”
“Not for a couple more days, and the way it’s been planned, we’ll all be here until the dawning of that day; so, drink up, be merry, and celebrate your twenty-first fucking birthday.”
“Sounds good to me, thanks kid, I owe you one.”
“No you don’t, just don’t expect anything under the birthday tree.” Bruce smiled, wiping the condensation from his hands across the skull of his well-worn Misfits shirt.
“Well played, Bruce; well played.” And with that, Josh wrapped an arm around Beth and together, they made their way through the house, meeting and greeting with the revelers.
It seemed that every other person passed out, an empty (or nearly-empty) bottle clutched in their hands; bodies strewn about like victims of the plague on some unmarked street in London.
By the dawning of the next day; only six remained – Josh, Beth, David, Michelle, Bruce and Jami; the holy-trinity of couples in the ever growing rogues gallery of friends. They sat up in one of the unused guest bedrooms smoking, drinking and talking random nonsense. The men sat back, resting on their palms, and their respective significant others lay against them, a paradigm of romantic wonderings. The drapes were pulled tight, and a sea of candles flickered wildly, casting oblong shadows and throwing silhouettes against the walls. A scene worthy of a gothic romance novel.
“Now that I am of age, with nothing really better to do other than work, I have a plan. It’s a great plan, a great big plan, a money-making scheme that will send us well-off into our latter years. It is a quest, of sorts.”
“Yes, King Arthur?” David drawled, a cigarette resting silently between his lips.
“Ha ha, fuck nut. I’ve been tossing the idea around for a few years now, working out the technicalities and what-not. We’re going to start a church.”
“Is that so?” Beth tilted her head back, looking up at him curiously. “Why have I heard nothing of this until now? We’ve been together, for what? Nearly a decade now?”
“True, we have, but it was all just a joke in my head until tonight. Before I got here, I had an epiphany; that it would work, and that this is the time to do it. But here’s the scam – this church, is the epitome of non-denominational. You can believe whatever you so desire: that there is a God in heaven, that Lucifer had the right idea or that the hierarchy was created to simply keep children in line. Don’t give a shit; do whatever you want, as long as the money is mine. It’ll be honest, and that’s why people will buy it.”
“But what about the government, man?” David asked, “They’ll nail us in a heartbeat for fraud, or something.”
“That’s why it works under the guise of a church, with no denomination. It’ll be like the televangelists. That’s how I got the idea. These cats don’t believe a word they spit, but everyone buys it, and sends in millions of dollars each year, tax-free. These pious religious scoundrels don’t have to pay a single red cent to Uncle Sam for it. See?”
“Dude, you’re fucked up.” Bruce chimed in, a tightly rolled joint in his hand, that only he and Jami was smoking.
“Not at all. It’ll work. No doubt in my mind.”
“Well hey, skeezix, if you really think it’ll work, I’m with you. But what do you need from us?”
“Signatures – a thousand of them. Not an easy task, I know, but I think we could get them easily; at say concerts up in Biloxi or the malls in Jackson. Wherever the freaky, retarded teens are hanging out nowadays: the ones who’ll sign anything if it could oppose the ‘majorities’ Christian deity, not exactly the best way or class of people, but it’ll do.”
“I still think you’re goddamned nuts, but I’m in.” Bruce chirped up again, then each of the girls agreed, and everyone burst into laughter; even Josh, who was more than serious about the idea.